1. Gandhi in South Africa
  2. Gandhi: 1890s till 1900s
  3. Gandhi in Boer War (1899)
  4. Gandhi in Zulu Wars (1906)
  5. 1913-14: The Peak of protests
  6. Transvaal March 1913
  7. Sugarcane Protests
  8. December Enquiry
  9. Evaluation of Gandhi in S.Africa
    1. #1: Gandhi as an “Integrationist”
    2. #2: Gandhi, the Feminist
    3. #3: Gandhi the “Mahatma”
    4. #4: Gandhi vs his Critiques
    5. #5: Gandhi, the British Patriot
    6. #6: Gandhi’s “Kesar-e-Hind”

Gandhi in South Africa

  • Topic in news because Ramachandra Guha released a new book –Gandhi Before India. Later EPW put a review article about this book.
  • And previously even PIB ran an article on Transvaal March (we saw that already)
  • But Since UPSC included world history in General studies Mains paper I-hence topic becomes important- what did Gandhi do before coming to India? How did he fight the imperialist powers in South Africa?

Gandhi: 1890s till 1900s

Timeline Gandhi in South Africa 1

  • 1893: Gandhi Arrives in South Africa, to fight Dadabhai Abdulla’s case.
  • Indian businessmen admired him for his fluency in English, legal matters and Gujarati background.
  • But Gandhi did not serve only those rich businessmen. He also fought cases for indentured laborers- mainly permit renewal type litigations.
  • Interestingly, he was the only Indian barrister practicing in Natal. Hence very busy with work.
1893 thrown out of a train from Durban to Pretoria, despite having a valid ticket to travel in the first class.
1894 founded Natal India Congress and became its first Secretary.
1899 another Indian barrister Rahim Karim Khan arrived.

Gandhi’s workload decreased, he starts spending more time reading about religion, politics.

authors How did they influence Gandhi?
Henry David Thoreau concept of Civil Disobedience
John Ruskin “Unto his last” – ideas of simple living, community living. Work by hands better than by machines. (same reflect in his “Hind Swaraj” later on).
Ralf Waldo Emerson concept of Individualism
Tolstoy The kingdom of God is within you.

Timeline Gandhi in South Africa 2

Gandhi in Boer War (1899)

  • Transvaal was rich in gold, so British plotted to overthrow Boer government.
  • This led to the Boer War (1899)=>Boers were defeated but they continued to live here.
  • During Boer war, Gandhi served from British side, as an assistant superintendent of the Indian volunteer stretcher-bearer corps.
  • Gandhi earned Boer war medal for his services.

He wrote in the autobiography:

When the war was declared, my personal sympathies were all with the Boers, but my loyalty to the British rule drove me to participation with the British in that war. I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such to participate in the defence of the British Empire. so I collected together as many comrades as possible, and with very great difficulty got their services accepted as an ambulance corps.

Phoenix Farm

  • 1904: Inspired by Tolstoy, Gandhi setups Phoenix farm. There he begins treating all ailments and preaching and writing about hygiene, sanitation, good diet, natural cures, and sexual abstinence. This sheds an important light on the origin of Gandhi Ashrams in India.
  • 1904: starts printing newspaper “Indian Opinion” from his farm.

Gandhi in Zulu Wars (1906)

  • British attacked Zulu population and made them serve as labour in the diamond mines across Southern Africa.
  • In 1906, the Zulu Rebellion broke out in Natal province of South Africa
  • Zulus demanded land rights and abolition of heavy taxes.
  • However, the whites declared war against the Zulus.
  • In this Zulu war/rebellion, Gandhi (Again) served from British side, as the officer in charge of the Indian volunteer ambulance corps and earned Zulu War Medal for his services.

Fight against Registration Act

1906-07 A new law required Indians to carry registration certificates all the time. Gandhi begins first passive resistance campaign / Satyagraha. He asks people to burn their certificates.
1908 Gandhi arrested for this campaign against registration act
1909 Gandhi travels to London, finally Transvaal registration act repealed.

1913-14: The Peak of protests

Timeline Gandhi in South Africa 3

March 1913
  • Supreme Court in Cape Town nullified all non-Christian marriages, and declared all Indian wives as mistress and their kids as bastards.
  • Gandhi immediately demanded a change in the law, declaring that declaring that “Any nation that fails to protect the honour of its women, any individual who fails to protect the honour of his wife is considered lower in level than a brute”.
  • Kasturba spearheaded a passive resistance. Women volunteered to go to jail on their own initiative.
April 1913 South African Union’s PM General Smuts introduced even harsher immigration bill. The bill included an ongoing provision for the £3 poll tax
May 1913 Gandhi demands poll tax and marriage issues be settled together. All Indians and Transvaal and Natal rally up behind him. But the immigration bill soon passed.
June 1913 King gives assent to bill and it became an “Act”.
Sep 1913 Gandhi launches the “passive resistance” courts arrest along with his followers- including women.
Oct 1913 5000 Indian coal miners of northern Natal go on strike. Gandhi and his co-workers were instrumental in encouraging the strike.
  • The coal miners’ strike provided the committed mass of supporters to Gandhi.
  • His movement gains attention of Indian press, Gandhi starts receiving funds from Gokhale, Aurobindo Ghosh and Wealthy Indians, even from princely states of India.
  • This money helped him to launch a long Transaaval march- arranging food and supplies for those protestors and their families.

Transvaal March 1913

  • Along with 2000 Natal coal miners, Gandhi began March towards Transvaal. At that time, crossing border from Natal to Transvaal required Permit- But they crossed border without permit.
  • Gen. Smuts downplayed this march thinking it’d soon collapse. (Just like how Lord Irwin thought Dandi Salt March would be an #EPICFAIL).
  • But since the protest did not collapse, General Smuts ordered police to arrest coal miners. Miners were sent to hard labour camps. Gandhi was thrown into Jail again.

SA2: Transvaal March

Q. Discuss the events leading to Transvaal March and how they helped transforming Gandhi as a mass leader? (10 marks | 200 words)
Topic important because completed 100 years in 2013.
First brainstorm for ideas

  1. What was the problem of Indians in S.Africa?
    1. registration
    2. migration difficult
    3. marriage invalid
  2. Gen. Smut wasn’t listening. Transval march=>Gen.Smut Listened.
  3. If he “transformed” as mass leader then in what wisdom did he gain during Transval March?

Now let’s frame the answer

Events Leading Transvaal March:

  • Since the early years of his stay in S.Africa, Gandhi had tried Moderate methods of prayers and petition to oppose the discriminating laws against Indians, but often he failed.
  • 1906: A legislation in Transvaal, required the Indians to register themselves and carry registration certificates at all times.
  • Gandhi initiated passive resistance or “satyagraha” and called the Indians to burn their certificates in public.
  • Later, the authorities even imposed restriction on the inter-provincial movement of Indians, and declared their Hindu marriages legally invalid.
  • Finally in 1913, Gandhi launched a March from Natal to Transvaal, crossing the border illegally. These Marchers were sent to jail and treated brutally. But the struggle paid off, and under Gen.Smut-Gandhi agreement, most of their demands were accepted.

Gandhi in South Africa Transvaal March
Gandhi’s transformation

  • Tolstoy farm and Phoenix farm were precursor to Gandhi’s ashrams in India.
  • He learned that civil disobedience and passive resistance were more effective than traditional moderate methods of prayers and petition.
  • Gained experienced of leading people from both genders, different religions, caste and social classes while facing resistance from both enemy and followers.
  • This experience made him bold enough to take hard decisions even at the peak of the enthusiasm of the followers e.g Calling off the NCM due to chauri-chaura incident.

~209 words. Anyways, back to the topic:

Sugarcane Protests

  • Time: mid-November 1913, after Arrest of Gandhi.
  • Place: Coastal areas of Natal, Sugar plantations.
  • Now here also, Indian laborers went on strike and began marching towards towns. This protest was wholly self-organised, they were inspired from the news of Transvaal March and Gandhi’s arrest.
  • Although they called Gandhi their “Raja” (king!) but methods were not always ‘Gandhian’.
  • Often these angry strikers would burnt plantations, attack policemen with knives, sticks and stones. Many injured and died.
  • The Indian laborers in Durban also began similar protests.

Overall, their demands were:

  1. Abolish poll tax
  2. Right to free travel without permit.
  3. Voting rights.
  4. Release Gandhi from jail

As the common sense suggests- General Smuts refused and called in the army to “teach” them a lesson.

December Inquiry

  • Protest gains momentum. Large amount of donations from India.
  • Even Viceroy Hardinge (India) criticized the South African government.
December 1913 Under pressure, General Smuts orders an enquiry commission. Himself wrote “You can’t put twenty thousand Indians into jail”.
March 1914 Commission report says following:
  1. Indian laborers are important for South African economy
  2. Give them permit for three years (instead of asking them to renew it every year.)
  3. All Indian marriage be legally recognized.
  4. Abolish £3 poll tax
June 1914 Government enacted the law to implement this report.
July 1914 Gandhi leaves for England. and from there, to India.

General Smut quotes

“Gandhi approached me on a number of small administrative points, some of which I could meet him on, and as a result, the saint has left our shores – I sincerely hope for ever.”

Evaluation of Gandhi in S.Africa

#1: Gandhi as an “Integrationist”

  • During South African struggle, Gandhi took help of Hindus, Muslims, Christian, Jews, Tamils, Parsi and even Chinese immigrants.
  • He sought the best in all, believed people of different backgrounds can living together in a united spirit.
  • This experience made him believe that all faiths can lead to salvation.
  • Gandhi was thus different than his contemporaries.
  • Indian Congress embraced all different races and religions but in the beginning Congress was very elitist-upper caste male dominated body.
  • Although Gokhale and Dadabhai Naoroji were free of sectarian and caste bias, but they lived very privileged life.
  • Contrary to them, Gandhi embraced a wide range of castes, races, religions- both male and female, and integrated them into the struggle in South Africa- he united all Asians and Africans, and not just the Indians.

#2: Gandhi, the Feminist

  • The idea of a woman going to jail had been unthinkable for male, upper-caste Indian nationalists.
  • But with Gandhi’s passive resistance in S.Africa, this became a common phenomenon, he asked women to join the protests and court arrests. [was influenced by feminist Millie Polak]
  • Thus, Gandhi played a catalyst in the entry of Indian women in political protests and freedom struggle.

#3: Gandhi the “Mahatma”

  • Gandhi’s long time friend Pranjivan Mehta used this title, in a letter to GK Gokhale (1912)
  • He wrote, “Mahatma Gandhi was one of those rare men who are occasionally born to elevate humanity in the land of their birth”
  • Guha compares the Gandhi-Mehta relationship to that of Marx and Engels.

#4: Gandhi vs his Critiques

  • During the Indian freedom struggle, we know that many revolutionaries and even Congress leaders did not fully approve Gandhian methods.
  • Similarly even in S.Africa, Gandhi faced critiques- main among them was a Tamil Journalist PS Aiyar.
Gandhi PS Aiyar
Indian should be given right to free movement within Transvaal region- without requiring any permits. not just Transvaal, Indian should get right to free movement throughout South Africa.
was against the £3 poll tax on Indian laborers. But he wanted to protest in “Gradual Stages”:

  • First we send petition to Government,
  • then mass meeting,
  • then petition to British parliament
  • if still no solution then we refuse to pay this tax.
  • No, we should immediately launch a mass movement to pressurize the government into abolishing the tax.
  • less talking and more “doing”

thus in the later phase of the movement, the bad relation between Gandhi and Aiyer radicalized the movement- with poors on Aiyar’s side and white / blue collar Indians on Gandhi’s side.

#5: Gandhi, the British Patriot

  1. Until the 1920s, Gandhi was an ardent British patriot
  2. He felt the British Empire embodied the principles of equality and liberty that he believed in.
  3. He considered General Smuts’ racist policies in South Africa as an aberration, rather than a defining trait of the British Empire.
  4. Gandhi saw British Raj as benevolent rather than tyrannical; despite its flaws, British Raj had been good for India (compared to the rule by native princes), and that the ideals of the British constitution merited the loyalty of all British subjects across the globe, white, black and Indian alike.
  5. Gandhi even declared that he and his fellow Indians were “proud to be under the British Crown, and England will prove India’s deliverer.”
  6. Gandhi participated in Boer and Zulu wars hoping it’d earn the trust of British authorities that Indians and Asians were indeed loyal subjects of his majesty, and they’ll be treated equally in South Africa.
  7. Some historians even argue, Gandhi participated in these wars with hope that it’d end the struggle in South Africa and help him return India.

#6: Gandhi’s “Kesar-e-Hind”

1915: Gandhi returned to India, Lord Hardinge awarded Kesar-e-Hind medal for his services in ambulance corps during South Africa.

1920: During Khilafat movement, Gandhi returned these medals to Viceroy Chelmsford and wrote,

  • It is not without a pang that I return the Kaisar-i-Hind gold medal granted to me by your predecessor (Lord Hardinge) for my humanitarian work in South Africa, the Zulu War medal granted in South Africa for my services as officer in charge of the Indian volunteer ambulance corps in 1906 and the Boer War medal for my services as assistant superintendent of the Indian volunteer stretcher-bearer corps during the Boer War of 1899-1900.
  • I venture to return these medals in pursuance of the scheme of non-cooperation inaugurated today in connection with the Khilafat movement. Valuable as these honours have been to me, I cannot wear them with an easy conscience so long as my Mussalman countrymen have to labour under a wrong done to their religious sentiment.
  • Events that have happened during the past one month have confirmed me in the opinion that the Imperial Government have acted in the Khilafat matter in an unscrupulous, immoral and unjust manner and have been moving from wrong to wrong in order to defend their immorality. I can retain neither respect nor affection for such a Government.

Mrunal comments: For MCQs, keep in mind Gandhi earned these medals for work in Zulu and Boer wars (and not WW1), and returned these medals for NCM in connection with Khilafat movement specifically. (As evident from his own letter above.) Because at some pages in Wikipedia and other books- they claim Gandhi got this medal for service in WW1 and returned them for Jaliawalan massacre = that’s incorrect.


  1. Inclusion of Women, all races and religions = must for success in a political struggle.
  2. His Ashrams as a meeting and training ground for all of them.
  3. Passive resistance, civil disobedience = more successful than violent methods.
  4. There will be critiques and setbacks but perseverance will lead to success.
  5. Made General Smuts to abolish poll tax, legally recognize Indian marriage, and give lengthier permits.
  6. Because of his achievements in South Africa, Gandhi could return to India as an Indian national hero with an established reputation- elicit support from Congress, other leaders and Indian people.
  7. Until 1920s, a British patriot, as seen from his participation in Zulu wars and Boer Wars. But later disillusioned by the British raj in India.

Now Ramchandra Guha is planning to write next book about Gandhi’s work in India from 1915-48.

Mock Questions (200 words each)

  1. “In South Africa, Gandhi fought against policies of General Smuts and not against the British empire.“ comment.
  2. Discuss in brief- South Africa as the experiment lab of Gandhian methods.
  3. Write a note on how South Africa turned Mohandas into Mahatma.
  4. Why did Gandhi fought against the colonial powers in South Africa? Evaluate his achievements and failures therein.